Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Most Beautiful Building Ever: Sagrada Familia

New York has the Statue of Liberty. Paris has the Eiffel Tower. Barcelona has the Sagrada Familia.

Let me start off by saying that I am not a churchy person. I've seen enough famous cathedrals in Europe to know that once you've seen one, you've seem them all. In my opinion, they are dim, gaudy, pretentious, and often a bit creepy. But a church built by Antoni Gaudí?

In designing Sagrada Familia ("Sacred Family"), Gaudí wanted to build a church that would relay the story of the Bible in stone. Although I respect the story told by the Sagrada Familia, what I appreciate most about Sagrada is that it is a tribute to nature. As explained in The Fantastical Pedrera and The Nautically Radical Casa Batlló, Gaudí incorporated nature into his buildings. Although many architectural inventions are attributed to Gaudí, he is famous for saying, "Nothing is invented, for it is written in nature first."

The columns of Sagrada Familia are tree trunks
in a large stone forest.

Construction of Sagrada Familia began in 1883 and continues to this day. Although the building isn't yet complete, it has received designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are some people who refuse to visit the Sagrada; "Why would I want to see something that is under construction?" If those naysayers could just see the looks of complete awe on the faces of those walking around the church, they would understand.

If you look closely, there are cobweb-like nettings
hanging on the facade (look at the red box).

This is where construction workers are working on the church.
Can you see the man in orange on the left?

Gaudí was not the first person who was asked to build Sagrada Familia. Another architect, Francicso de Paula del Villar, had already broken ground on the church in 1883. A disagreement had caused Francisco to walk away from the church. When Gaudií took over, the crypt, below the church, had already been completed. In fact, the crypt is the only place inside the building that Gaudí ever saw completed before he died. Gaudí is buried within the crypt.

Francisco originally designed the church in the traditional Neo-gothic style of the era. Though Gaudí preserved the cruciform footprint that is prevalent in most church designs, Gaudí drastically altered the church's design. He made it his own.

When Gaudí took over construction in 1884, he was 31 years-old. Gaudí died in a tram accident in 1926, at the age of 74. Though he dedicated forty-three years of his life to the church, only one-tenth of the church was finished when he died. Ninety-one years have passed since Gaudí's death, and the church is still under construction. It is estimated that construction will be complete in the year 2026, to honor the 100th anniversary of Gaudí's passing.

Sagrada Familia, as seen from Park Guëll.

On November 7, 2010, in front of a crowd of more than 8,000 people, the church was consecrated as a Minor Basilica by Pope Benedict XVI. From then on, the church has been used as a Catholic place of worship.

When I visited the church, police were present on the street corners. As you may recall, terrorists drove a van into a crowd at La Rambla a few months ago, killing 13 people. The terrorists claimed they had wanted to target other monuments around the city as well, such as the Sagrada.

The Mossos d'Esquadra, the local Catalonian police, stand guard outside the church.

There were a lot of people touring Sagrada Familia. The crowds, however, didn't interfere much with the experience, as you had to look above head level to see the church's visuals.

I paid for the Basic Entry, which just included the general admission. I decided not to purchase a ticket to go up in the towers, as I had already seen views of the entire city from other points in Barcelona. Also, I decided not to tack on the audioguide, which was an additional 7€. Instead, I downloaded an App by MusMon (which stands for MUSeum and MONuments Multimedia Guides In Your Phone) for less than $3. The app was fantastic! I particularly enjoyed that the 90-minute of commentary altered between a narrator and an actor portraying Gaudí.

The Exterior

The church has three facades: the Nativity, the Passion, and the Glory. The first two facades are complete; the third is still under construction.

The church is designed to have eighteen spires, though many are still under construction.

This diagram shows the church's spires.
The spires in gray are complete;
the ones in yellow are yet to be constructed.

When complete, the central spire will be 566 feet tall. This is the same height as the largest nearby mountain, as Gaudí believed that human-made objects should not be in competition with natural creations. Gaudí only saw one of the spires raised before he died.

This spire looks like a sugar-coated lollipop.

Look closely at the top of the lower spires in the image below. Do you see fruit? Gaudí topped the spires with fruits and vegetables that appear in the spring on the Nativity side and those that appear in the fall on the Passion side.

Look closely to see the fruit and vegetable-topped spires.

The Nativity Facade

The Nativity facade, which faces to the east, describes the main events surrounding the birth of Jesus. This was the first and only facade that Gaudí constructed. The facade was finished shortly before he died.

The Nativity facade is an elaborate display of detailed carvings. In order to make the carvings as realistic as possible, people and animals in the neighborhood modeled for the carvings. Each carving has story-telling value and is chock-full of symbolism. Looking at the facade reminded me of the Hidden Pictures challenges in the Highlights magazine I read as a kid.

The central portal of the Nativity facade is separated by a pillar representing Jesus's family tree. At the base of the pillar is a snake and apples, symbolizing Adam and Eve. At the top of the pillar is Jesus and his parents, as you can see in the image below.

The central pillar represents the family tree.

Surrounding the family tree are two large filigreed iron doors, which are open in the photo above. The filigree runs up along the glass arches at the top of the door frames. This filigree represents the greenery and small insects and animals from Palestine, where Jesus was born. If you look closely at the doors, you'll see amazing detail, including this tiny snail climbing among the leaves.

A tiny snail, about 1" in length, is detailed in the church doors.

The Passion Facade

The Passion facade, which faces to the west, was started almost thirty years after Gaudí's death. The facade reads like a book, in thirteen separate chronological vignettes, telling the stories of Jesus's death and ascension. The sculptures were designed by Josep Maria Subirachs (1927-2014). They clearly have a far more abstract style than the sculptures from the Nativity facade.

In the crucification vignette, Gaudí made the cross horizontal so that Jesus is suspended by his arms.

I really like Subirach's cubist sculptures.

In this scene, Gaudí is remembered posthumously with a cameo appearance.
He is the figure on the far left.

A magic square appears a few times in the Passion facade. Also designed by Subirachs, the magic square is a cryptogram, or a text written in code. Whenever numbers are added horizontally, vertically, or diagonally, they always sum to 33, the age Jesus was when he died. In fact, there are 310 such combinations in the magic square. To read more about Subirach's magic square, click here.

The scene portraying the betrayal of Judas,
with the magic square on the left.

Subirach's cyrptogram.

The Glory Facade

The Glory Facade is still under construction. It faces the city and will be the main entrance to the church. Gaudí purposely left the sketches undeveloped for this facade, as he wanted the workers who constructed the facade to use the style of their own time. The present day architect sure has big shoes to fill!

The yet-to-be-finished Glory facade.

The doorway to the Passion Facade is made of bronze. Each door weighs more than 4,400 pounds. Etched into the doors is the line "Give us this day our daily bread," from the Lords Prayer. It is written in fifty languages, starting with Catalan, which is the official language of the region. Gaudí included all the languages because he wanted the church to be inclusive of all people.

The doorway is inscribed with a line from a prayer in fifty languages.

The Interior

As mentioned earlier, Gaudí designed the columns of the church to represent tree trunks. Each column transforms from a polygonal shape at the base to near perfect circular shapes at the apex. The unique shape of these double-helix columns shifts weight to the floor, preventing the need for buttresses. Notice in the photo below how the glass is colored in the lower portions of the church but kept clear at the far upper reaches. This allows more light to illuminate the top of the church.

The stone forest.

There are 36 columnar tree trunks in total. Each is made up of a different material, is representative of a different entity, and wears an emblem signifying its representation. Lamps illuminate the colorful emblems.

The illuminated lamps on the columns at the transept
are simply gorgeous.

The stained glass windows in the church sing a symphony of color. Running along the bottom of the stained glass windows, you can just make out a railing. This is where the choir sits. As Gaudí believed that the human voice was the most important instrument, he made space to accommodate up to 1,000 choir members. And yes, the church is said to have perfect acoustics.

The stained glass windows on the Nativity side of the church.
The windows on the Passion side have a more reddish theme.

I love the simple, colorful, secular stained-glass.

The Sagrada's cloister is unusual in that it runs around the entire church rather than just being off to one side. As you can see, it has quite a modernist design.

The cloister.

The final leg of the tour was through a museum, which included a few scale models and drawings of the church. (Most of the models and drawings were destroyed during the Spanish Civil War). It's astonishing how Gaudí was able to incorporate such complex math and geometry in his designs, well before the era of computers.

The model workshop, where Gaudí's remaining original models
are being restored.

The Sagrada Familia is, without a doubt, the most beautiful building I have ever seen.

This post gives you a minute sampling of the Sagrada Familia. There is so much more to be seen in the church. And neither my photos -- nor the photos of professionals -- can even begin to give justice to the magnificence of the church. Seeing the church with your own eyes is a must if you are ever in Barcelona.

It would be neat to revisit Sagrada Familia again in ten years, when the construction is complete and when the construction cranes have been replaced by a complete set of spires. It would be interesting to see the blending of styles of the workers who have toiled on the church for more than 140 years.

But what would be super-duper neat is if Gaudí could somehow come back to life and see Sagrada Familia in its finished state. I think he would be rather pleased.

Updated November 4, 2017:

I just noticed that one of my favorite podcasts, 99% Invisible, recently released an episode about the Sagrada Familia. You can listen to the episode here.


  1. I completely agree, I think it is a most amazing place. For me, It was so much better than visiting the Vatican; Sagrada Familia is just amazing and awe inspiring, whereas the excesses of the Vatican actually sicken me. It will be interesting to see if they actually finish it for the upcoming anniversary... there is so much left to complete.

    1. I also find the extravagance to be sickening. It's perplexing when the outward image of an organization is at odds with the supposed inner mentality.

      Nine years ineed seems like a small window to finish all that still needs to be completed on the Sagrada. But, hey, there's always 3D printing, right? ;)

  2. WOW!!! In one way it will almost be sad when this is 'done'. How many generations have been born an grew up being able to see what was new every year of their lives?

    But on the other hand, being able to see the finished product without scaffolding, and cranes would be amazing. I think my favorite part (of what you showed) are the tree trunks and the attention to the critters that run around the forests...

    Just wow!!

    1. "Wow" is right! I thought the same thing about the multiple generations that have seen the church grow. And to think it has survived a war, too!

    2. WOW! I hadn't thought about WWII!! I am glad you went over there, I hadn't heard of this place at all!

    3. I wasn't referring to either of the World Wars; I was referring to the Spanish Civil War, which took place from 1936 to 1939. Barcelona was heavily bombed. More on that in a later post. 😀


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